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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                        3^7
"Richthofen, not Richtovens," he said. "And 'Richtho-
fen' means: keep your eyes peeled if you don't want to
burn among the weeds today. It means: keep your ears
wide open and don't lose contact. The Richthofens, my
boy, are wild beasts that can get their teeth into you
before you know where you are!"
At dawn, the first squadron went up under the com-
mand of the colonel himself. While it was in the air a
second group of twelve fighter planes got ready for flight.
It was to be commanded by Guards Major Fedotov, Hero
of the Soviet Union, the most experienced airman in the
wing, bar the commander. The machines were ready, the
men were in their cockpits, the engines were in low gear,
sending gusts of air across the space at the edge of
the wood like the wind that sweeps the ground and
shakes the trees before a storm, when the first, big,
heavy drops of rain are already splashing on the thirsty
From his cockpit, Alexei watched the machines of the
first group descending steeply as if they were slipping out
of the sky. Involuntarily, in spite of himself, he counted
them and his heart leapt with anxiety when an interval
occurred in the landing of two of the machines. But the
last one landed. All had returned. Alexei breathed a sigh
of relief.
Scarcely had the last machine taxied away when Major
Fedotov's "No. 1" tore off the ground, followed by the
other fighter planes in pairs. They lined up beyond the
wood. Rocking his plane, Fedotov lay on his course. They
flew low, cautiously keeping in the zone of the breach
made the day before. Now Alexei saw the ground speed
under his plane not from a great height, not in distant
perspective which lends everything a toylike appearance,
but close to him. What the day before had appeared to
him from above like a game, now presented itself as a
vast, boundless battle-field. Fields, meadows and copses,
ploughed up by shells and bombs and scarred by trenches,
raced madly under his wings. Dead bodies were scattered
in the fields; abandoned guns, singly and in whole batte-
ries; wrecked tanks; long heaps of twisted iron and shat-
tered wood where artillery had pounded the columns; a
large wood, completely razed to the ground, looking from